UK police plan to offer free heroin to addicts in unconventional proposals to tackle drug-related crime. Durham Constabulary plan to give out the Class A drug in specially designed "shooting galleries" in the city centre.

With the death toll caused by heroin and morphine-related substances standing at a record high, users will be able to inject themselves with pharmaceutical heroin (diamorphine) twice a day in a supervised environment under plans inspired by similar projects in Switzerland.

Chief Constable Mike Barton believes the new approach to tackle long-term heroin use will deliver a sharp cut in thefts and robberies – thereby saving valuable police resources at a time when budgets are stretched to breaking point.

Barton is adamant that his controversial plan is the right way forward for Durham, rated the only outstanding force in the UK by police watchdog Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC).

"We need to get over our moral panic about giving people heroin as part of a treatment plan," he said. "Police were set up to prevent crime, not to arrest people."

"What I would want is a facility for a small number of people to be provided with heroin rather than methadone. It's more expensive to give people heroin in terms of staff time. My understanding is that it's got to be supervised because we don't want any leakage of the heroin.

"It's not for everybody as I recognise that this is controversial. But there have been plenty of peer-reviewed experiments that have been reported in The Lancet [a medical journal] that show this is an effective form of treatment."

"Up until the 1960s this is what we did. People were prescribed heroin by their GP and encouraged to detox."

The Home Office estimates that the cost of drug-related crime to the economy is £13bn a year. Barton argues that, by providing users with heroin, his force will stem the flow of money that makes its way into the hands of dealers.

At present there are believed to be around 2,000 heroin users in the Durham area but the new scheme would only be targeted at the most at-risk offenders.

In 2013 Barton called for the decriminalisation of class A drugs, saying heroin and cocaine should be made available on the NHS. He believes that the prohibition of class A drugs has put billions of pounds into the pockets of criminal gangs and that legalising these substances would destroy their power base.

Professor Neil McKeganey, director of the Centre for Substance Use Research has since criticised the plans, saying: "I think the worry here is that once you set up a centre like this, it will attract addicts and they will remain dependent on heroin, undermining services committed to getting people off drugs. I think it's extraordinary if the police budget is being used in this way."